Judith Okonkwo is driving extended reality adoption for the everyday Nigerian 

Judith Okonkwo he describes himself as a ‘technology evangelist’ with a career spanning banking, skills development and mentoring for start-ups and SMEs. In 2016, he founded Ìmísí 3D, an augmented reality (XR) creative lab in a drive to drive XR adoption in Nigeria and Africa. Okonkwo’s company has an XR lab in Lagos, Nigeria, where visitors can stop by and learn about the technology and capabilities of XR.

In this episode of My Life in Tech, he tells me about Ìmísí 3D’s primary interest in technology education and his childhood interest that led him to create an XR adoption startup in Africa.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

First, the name Ìmísí an Igbo phrase for “inside the head”?

No. It means motivation. Yoruba, not Igbo.

Really!

It means encouraging difference and change, and this new reality. However, moving forward, it’s about making change real and tangible.

It’s interesting. So, how did you become interested in augmented reality?

I was always very interested in three things: technology, the future, and people. When I was a kid, one of my favorite toys was the View-Master. It looks like binoculars, and you can click on these holographic images on it. It’s like a virtual reality (VR) headset.

I was pretty pumped when Oculus was acquired by Facebook in 2014; that was a big thing in space. And then, Google Cardboard also came out, and suddenly, people might start thinking about what could happen. A lot of people say that’s not really VR, but it’s like a gateway to it.

I remember I was just waiting for the Samsung Gear VR to come out—it had already been announced—and I got the first one. Once I tried it, there was no going back.

What exactly does Ìmísí 3D do? What are you about?

To answer that question, one of the things that will be useful is to tell you three levels of effort in what we do.

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The first is that we have an evangelistic mission. We want to make sure that everyday people know what technology is—you know what AR and VR and mixed reality are; you don’t think it’s something out there, you don’t think it’s an alien. We have a lab, and it’s open to access. You can come in, try things on, and ask questions.

The second core objective for us: we believe that if we are ever going to see the power of this technology, we must build it ourselves; we must be creative. We are investing heavily in trying to support the creative community across the African continent. We hold meetings, and run events, masterclasses and hackathons across Africa. We have opened labs in several states across Nigeria. Back in the day, we used to offer scholarships for VR nanodegrees. We do whatever we think can help people start building a community. Our third tier of effort is investing in projects in sectors that we think have the greatest potential for impact. For us, that makes work in areas like education, healthcare, storytelling, and digital preservation.

We spent 18 months working on the Africa XR report and trying to get it out into the world.

Tell me about the AR/VR Hackathon you’re running in partnership with Meta.

AR/VR Hackathon is our thing. We have been using this hackathon for years. We ran our first hackathon in 2016. In 2018, we took the AR/VR Africa hackathon to seven African countries. In 2020, we planned to do it physically in 10 countries, but then the pandemic happened and everything went in an unusual way. So we made it a hybrid event where 28 countries participated. We have recruited volunteers from all over the world to run workshops and masterclasses and provide teaching sessions; we had about 120 of those times. We had a two and a half month camp the following year (because the hackathon started in December last year), which ended with the demo day.

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So this year, with Meta’s focus on the metaverse, there’s definitely a lot of interest from their teams on the continent to do things related to this and they’re approaching us to ask, “What can we do?” They were interested in doing the same thing. In the past, other Facebook groups—not the one we’re working with this year—have sponsored our hackathons. So, this year’s AR/VR Africa Hackathon is still our event, but this time, we are working closely with Meta to make it happen.

The hackathon takes place in 16 countries from mid-August this year to April 2023. Will that happen simultaneously?

A virtual human hackathon will take place on the first weekend of December, and that will be simultaneously in 16 countries. For people who are not in those 16 countries, they will be able to hack almost, and they will be able to do so by the end of November. At the end of the year, we will announce all the winners, and the top teams from each country will participate in the training camp.

So how was your fundraising journey?

What do they say here in Nigeria—”hot tears”? What would be great for people doing what we do is to have someone say, “Here’s a bunch of money to run your stuff or ecosystem development programs for X amount of time.” But what we’ve had is doing events and getting funding. In between, we hope for the best!

Is this because the XR is not the most sought after solution; that it is niche?

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The problem is that people cannot develop skills in the way they should develop. A person should be able to wake up and say, “I will go to this institute or school where I can study XR, where there is a fully functioning laboratory.” But you can’t find that anywhere in Nigeria—never mind the machines.

And you should know that no major tech companies are selling their XR hardware in Africa, which is funny. Microsoft has a mixed reality platform, but its HoloLenses are not here.

What motivates you?

I truly believe that if this work is not done, it will be a disaster for the continent and the world. I always think that when this technology prevails in 100 years and comes to define almost every aspect of human interaction, what will people do? [who haven’t prepared for this] so what did you do? And, for me, the answer to that is scary.

Another part of it is: there are some challenges on the continent that I don’t think we will ever solve normally. In a sector like education, even if Nigeria were to dedicate its entire budget for next year to education, it would not be possible, that we can cross our fingers and suddenly enough schools will be built, or enough qualified teachers. If we’re going to make these infrastructures successful, we’re going to have to use technology like this to improve education and things like that.

My Life in Tech (MLIT) is a biweekly column that profiles founders, leaders, and builders in the African tech ecosystem, with the aim of putting a human face on startups and founders. A new episode airs every Wednesday at 3 PM (WAT). If you think your story would be of interest to MLIT students, please fill out this form.

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